The Information Superhighway Opportunities for Co-ops

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    This document has been made available in electronic format
         by the International Co-operative Alliance ICA 
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                         July, 1996


Source : Review of International Co-operation Vol.89, No
1/1996, 10-13.


       The Information Superhighway Opportunities for Co-ops
                     by Bruce Thordarson*
      ******************************************************


Introduction
------------
This article will concentrate on how the electronic network
can help co-operatives around the world deal with some of
their major problems, and to explain a little bit about what
is happening today, especially at the global level.

World-Wide Co-operative Network
-------------------------------
Anyone who has had much association with co-operatives knows
that they have one major strength - their decentralised
structure as well as one major weakness - their decentralised
structure.  Much of the history of co-operative development
around the world has centred on the quest to maximise the
strengths of this unique characteristic, while minimising its
weaknesses.  

Nowhere is this weakness more apparent than in the field of
information. Even among otherwise well-informed opinion-
makers, politicians, journalists, and so on, the  lack of
understanding about the co-operative form of enterprise is
almost frightening. In business schools, learned journals, and
economic text-books, there is an equal dearth of solid
information about co-operative values, principles, and
operating practices. In the mass media, how often does one
hear about co-operatives other than when one has gone
bankrupt as if this does not happen to partnerships, joint
stock companies, and other forms of investor-owned business
every day.

This information gap is even more striking when one compares
it with the true picture of co-operative business today. At
the global level, more than 700 million people - operatives
which are affiliated with the International Co-operative
Alliance - and to this must be added many million members of
informal, unstructured, or unaffiliated organisations.
Co-operatives are market leaders in agriculture and personal
finance in many countries. Around the world they occupy
important market shares in five major sectors: consumer
retailing, agricultural production and processing, banking and
insurance, worker-owned production, and service provision.

The Challenges for Co-operatives
--------------------------------
As co-operatives look ahead to the next century, this gap
between reality and public perception must be one of their
major concerns  and challenges. How to better inform 
decision-makers, media, researchers - and above all, young
people - about the true nature and strength of co-operative 
enterprise?

How the Internet Can Help
--------------------------
At ICA we are convinced that one of the most promising
directions for the future is the information super-highway. On
the one hand, it builds upon a traditional co-operative
strength: a non- hierarchical, bottom-up structure. On the
other, it helps to compensate for a major co-operative
weakness: its decentralised, diversified structure, which
makes information-collection and information-distribution both
expensive and difficult.

We all can have different ideas about how dominant the role of
electronic networking will become in the years ahead. Whether
or not the phenomenal growth rates of Internet connections of
recent years will continue remains to be seen.  But there can
be little doubt that the electronic network will be a growing,
and highly significant source of information in the future. 
Co-operatives will ignore it at their peril.

Electronic Networking Project 
-----------------------------
The ICA's head office in Geneva began researching electronic
networking possibilities over two years ago, and implemented a
strategy based on this research in April 1994.  It was based
on two elements: internal communications and external
information.

The first challenge, still far from being realised, is to make
full use of the communications possibilities of the Internet
within the ICA family.  We define this family to include our
Head office, four Regional Offices, a couple of Project
Offices, 14 Specialised Organisations and Committees in
different parts of the world, development partners, and - of
course our more than 200 member organisations.  

Surprisingly enough, we have found that our small office is
ahead of almost all of them in thinking about the potential
for using e-mail, listservers, bulletin boards, and
conferences in order to improve the efficiency and to lower
the costs of communications.  One of the highlights of the
ICA's Centennial Congress, held in Manchester in September,
was the hands-on presentations organised by our Communications
staff, in collaboration with the host organisations, to show
delegates exactly what could be accomplished.  

One area about which we are quite concerned is to ensure that
this new information technology does not broaden the disparity
between developing countries and the rest of the world.  We
have therefore gone to considerable efforts to ensure that our
Regional Offices in India, Tanzania, Cote d'Ivoire, and Costa
Rica can access and contribute to our on-line activities.  
We have also developed a strategy which is backwards
compatible to ensure that ICA members in countries which do
not have access to high-bandwidth Internet lines can
contribute to and benefit from the project. ICA has also
become a founding member of the first European chapter of the
Internet Society, and will take part in its special working
group on development, which is designed to facilitate the
transfer of technology to the developing world.

The second part of the programme is designed to put
co-operative information into the Internet, free of charge, in
order to improve understanding about co-operatives. 

ICA began establishing the co-op presence on the Internet in
four stages in collaboration with the University of Wisconsin: 
input of co-operative materials into existing discussion
groups; setting up a Listserver where information and messages
can be posted on certain topics; establishment of a Gopher;
and creation of World Wide Web pages - probably the best way
to structure information in a useable manner. All of the above
objectives have now been achieved but much work needs to be
done on building up these information tools and on promoting
them to our members and the world at large.

The biggest step in this direction has been to set up an
electronic information bank on co-operatives in collaboration
with the University of Wisconsin's Center for Co-operatives. 
This is admittedly an ambitious, time-consuming, and expensive
undertaking, but the effort seems to us to be fully warranted
in light of the huge problems which misunderstanding and lack
of information cause to co-operatives around the world.  And
what better tool can there be to reach the millions of young
decision makers of the future  - an often-neglected target in
co-operative activities and programmes.

Implications for Co-operatives
------------------------------
Co-ops usually want to know about the potential of the
Internet for promoting trade and other forms of commercial
activity.  On the one hand, one can assume that any technique
which facilitates improved communications is bound to be good
for business - one need only think of what doing business was
like in the days before the fax machine.  On the other hand,
although the Internet is a global phenomenon, the bulk of
cybertrade has remained within national borders. Problems of
security of information and the lack of global agreements
regarding international payments, liability and taxation have
not yet been resolved, even though experts are working to
resolve them and to guarantee reliability of service (i.e.
that Web sites etc. can be accessed around the clock) which is
not yet possible.

One of the greatest advantages of the electronic network will
be to reduce distances.  When one thinks that we in Geneva
could send a message as quickly, and as cheaply, to  a
co-operative in Japan as we could to one in Switzerland - not
to mention the possibilities of multi-media communications -
one can imagine that the distances which separate continents
are going to seem much shorter in the future.

Future Directions
-----------------
Coming back to the strengths and weaknesses of co-operatives -
the biggest challenge in this area, as in others, will be to
ensure that co-operative participation in the electronic
network is organised in a coherent, compatible,
mutually-beneficial manner.  In other words, to ensure that
each national movement, or even sector, does not develop
programmes and approaches which are incompatible or even
competitive.

Standardisation and information-sharing are techniques which
support compatibility.  Co-operatives should certainly be
encouraged to start their own on-line data banks, gophers, or
Web pages, but it would be good if the global programme, being
coordinated by ICA, could at least be informed when something
is started.  This would enable us to arrive at a
mutually-beneficial agreement to allow a gateway from a new
gopher site to the ICA gopher, and vice-versa.

For those of you with a special interest in this area, we
would be pleased to make available copies of the ICA Gopher
Plan so that you can see the various directories that are now
being developed - by country, by sector, by topic, and so on. 
With some common effort and information-sharing, the new
electronic technology could help co-operatives to overcome one
of their major traditional weaknesses, and to continue their
progress towards meeting more and more member needs in the
future.

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*    Mr Thordarson, Director-General of the International
     Co-operative Alliance, prepared this article for a
     conference in November 1995.